Author Archive: Jen Kinney

When Red Statehouses Overrule Blue City Halls

Cleveland is one of many U.S. cities impacted by state preemption laws. (Photo by Aeroplanepics0112 via Flickr)

It’s no secret that the gulf between the social values of cities and the state governments that control them has been widening a long time. Cities skew Democratic, while in 25 states Republicans control both houses and the governorship. But with a Republican stranglehold over the federal government as well, the battle over preemption laws is heating up. A new report by the National League of Cities tallies which states have passed laws to restrict cities’ autonomy, and looks at how cities might fight back.

“State preemption efforts can lead to a loss of control for cities, and ultimately the control of the citizens that vote in their elected leaders,” says Clarence E. Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, who characterizes this as a time of transition in the relationship between city leaders and their state-level counterparts.

In recent years, movements to raise the minimum wage, provide paid sick leave, and guarantee protections for trans residents in particular have gained momentum in cities from Seattle to New York to Charlotte, North Carolina. But in the latter city, and many others, state preemption laws have prevented measures adopted by city councils and approved by voters from actually being implemented.

In North Carolina, the hotly contested HB2 not only struck down a local Charlotte ordinance that allowed trans people to use the bathroom of their choice and prohibited the passage of further anti-discrimination ordinances, but it also eliminated cities’ authority to increase the minimum wage over the state minimum. Despite the economic fallout of North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” 11 states followed suit.

The NLC report, “City Rights in an Era of Preemption: A State-by-State Analysis,” focuses on seven forms of preemption: those that restrict cities’ ability to pass laws regarding the minimum wage, paid leave, anti-discrimination protection, ride-sharing, home-sharing, municipal broadband, and those that place limitations on local tax and expenditure decisions. But those aren’t the only areas in which states are trying to strip cities of control. Preemption laws have also been passed or attempted around plastic bag ordinances, gun control, nutrition, rent control and, recently, funding for sanctuary cities.

(Credit: National League of Cities)

The report notes that preemption has its own vocabulary. Legislation might grant the state “exclusive” or “sole” regulatory authority over a certain issue, or decree that local laws can be no more “stringent” or “restrictive” than those passed by the state. Localities in all but two states — Connecticut and Vermont — are limited by some form of preemption. A whopping 42 states have tax and expenditure limitations of some kind, which restrict local authority to raise taxes, spend revenue or both.

Along with growing anti-sanctuary city legislation, which the report does not examine, legislation blocking minimum wage increases is swiftly on the rise. As the report notes, 2016 was the year of “fight for $15,” but it was also the year of minimum wage preemption. Even as 23 cities and states raised wages, Alabama and North Carolina both passed ordinances preventing increases in 2016, bringing the total number of states with preemption laws to 24.

“In the past, general limitations such as tax and spending limitations seemed to dominate. We’ve noticed, however, that the trend has been shifting toward legislation that is introduced on behalf of a particular industry to exempt them from local authority,” says Kim Winn, executive director of the Virginia Municipal League.

In her state, that’s included Uber and Lyft lobbying to be exempt from taxi regulation, and Airbnb asking for exemption from land use regulation. Across the country, 37 states have some sort of legislation on the ride hailing apps, while three regulate home-sharing. This legislation cuts both ways: Colorado was the first to legalize TNCs statewide, requiring drivers have insurance and undergo background checks, while Virginia attempted to ban Uber and Lyft. Either way, these laws can prevent local governments from regulating the companies as they see fit.

But cities aren’t taking this lying down, and their attempts to fight preemption have often been bolstered by the courts. Matt Zone, NLC president and Cleveland council member, cites a battle over hiring practices in his own city. Several years after Cleveland adopted an ordinance requiring a certain percentage of work hours on large construction projects be performed by local and low-income residents, the state passed legislation barring local hire quotas. A court struck it down in January, saying the state had overstepped its constitutional bounds. “So that was a huge success for local government,” says Zone.

Last June, Miami Beach’s City Commission unanimously voted to increase the minimum wage from the state minimum of $8.05 to $10.31, despite a preemption law. “We know that wages have not kept up with the cost of living, which is felt more acutely in South Florida communities like Miami Beach,” said Mayor Philip Levine. “Our residents and workers are counting on their leaders to stand up for them after seeing Tallahassee continuously roadblock progress. So to the state, I say, see you in court.”

He’s getting his wish: The state of Florida joined business groups in a lawsuit against the city earlier this month.

The NLC report advises cities to pick their preemption battles, and to try to halt the preemption narrative before it starts — the idea that cities are out of control, and states need to reign them in. Winn says her organization focuses its energy on informing legislators, who frequently do not understand how bills will affect cities they do not represent. Brooks Rainwater, director of the Center for City Solutions at NLC and a report co-author, says the uptick in preemption laws is also tied to model legislation being pushed by organizations like ALEC. These pre-written ordinances make it easy for legislation to spread quickly state to state.

Both Democrat- and Republican-controlled states rank among the top 10 for number of preemption laws, but Rainwater says there’s a clear trend in where they tend to take hold. “Certainly we’ve seen this take place where concentrated political power at the state level doesn’t line up with politics at the local level,” he says. Thanks to gerrymandering, that concentration of political power tends to tilt in one direction, and it’s not in the direction of cities. Needless to say, there are no states with Democratic statehouses and predominantly Republican city halls.

Another City Plans Overnight Revamp of Its Entire Bus System

Subject to change: a stop on COTA’s current 7 line (Photo by Sam Howzit, via Flickr)

A few years ago, when the CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) compared maps of Columbus’ original bus system from the 1970s to the system today, he noticed something striking. “Not much had changed in the bus routes, while a lot had changed in the Columbus Ohio region,” says Josh Sikich, COTA’s transit system redesign project manager.

On May 1, Columbus will become the next U.S. city to enact an overnight bus overhaul, a la Houston, Anchorage, Jacksonville and others. Like Houston, as Columbus’ population has grown, the single, central employment district has fractured into a number of employment nodes not currently well-served by public transit. Like Anchorage, routes winding through residential neighborhoods are costing time and money without contributing much to service. (Also like both cities: Jarrett Walker and Associates consulted on the redesign.)

With the route switch-up, the number of high-frequency bus routes will double, buses will run the same schedules seven days a week, and the number of jobs within a quarter mile of a high frequency route will increase by 70 percent — all while reducing the number of buses on the road from about 360 to 314.

“We’re creating a more efficient use of our resources,” says Mike Bradley, COTA’s vice president of planning and service development.

Currently, Columbus’ seven high-frequency routes — on which buses arrive every 15 minutes or less — comprise over 40 percent of total system ridership. Over the years, COTA has bulked up service on those routes to respond to the demand, but they’re still a hub-and-spoke system, requiring riders from outlying neighborhoods to bus downtown in order to reach other outlying neighborhoods.

After the redesign, 15 routes will feature high frequency service, and several will connect outlying neighborhoods directly.

“It will be a huge improvement for a lot of people, not having to come downtown, having this backbone of 15-minutes or better service,” says Sikich. The buildout will increase the number of residents within a quarter mile of a high-frequency route by 90 percent. The number of jobs within walking distance of such a route will increase from about 155,000 to 265,000.

“If you’re a transit planner, the number one thing you can do to increase ridership is through more frequent service,” says Bradley. In the first three to four months, while riders get used to the change, COTA expects ridership to decrease, but they are hoping to see a 10 percent increase by the end of the first two years. If it works, it will reverse a three-year decline. According to the Columbus Dispatch, annual ridership dropped from 19.3 million in 2014 to 18.8 million in 2016.

To speed up the adjustment period, COTA has been engaged in a public education campaign. Informational signs are going up at every stop. Starting six weeks before implementation and running until mid-May, street teams will visit all of the system’s highest ridership stops to talk to people about the changes to their routes one-on-one. Call center staff is being beefed up, and on May 1 itself, COTA staff will be a big presence on the sidewalks.

“We don’t want [riders] to fall in the habit of still going downtown and coming back out, we want them to know in some cases they can cut their trip in half,” says Sikich. The education campaign follows several years of public outreach to get input on the redesign.

Inspired by Houston, Columbus will already have installed new route signage prior to May 1, and will simply send out teams to remove fabric hoods the night of the rollout. “We looked at a bunch of systems and saw the way that pulling the bandage off all at once seemed to work for them,” says Bradley. Several COTA staff went down to Houston to watch their redesign unveiling in action, including Public and Media Relations Manager Lisa Myers.

“Some people were confused, some people are excited,” she says of the rollout. “I think you see the range of emotions, because transit can be such a personal experience for people especially if they’re transit dependent or transit reliant.”

Some residents will need to walk slightly further to reach bus stops after the redesign removes the loops buses sometimes take on residential streets. Eliminating those deviations is part of how COTA will increase coverage while reducing buses on the street. Seven-day-a-week service will also represent a major change: starting May 1, riders will be able to catch the same bus at the same time every day of the week.

With estimates that Central Ohio could grow by an additional 500,000 to 1 million people by 2050, COTA wants to be prepared with a system that leaves room to grow in the future. Myers says supporting economic growth in Polaris, Easton, Grandview Yard and other burgeoning areas is also a priority. Service expansion, which will cost roughly $9.4 million, is partially funded by a sales tax increase approved by voters in November.

Highway or No, Trenton Eyes Waterfront Redevelopment

Trenton’s slogan, emblazoned on the Lower Trenton Bridge (Photo by Glenn Beltz via Flickr)

Just south of Trenton’s famous bridge, which telegraphs the message “Trenton Makes, the World Takes,” is a swath of waterfront property many agree could yield much more for New Jersey’s capital city — if only a pesky little highway could be replaced.

Cut off from the rest of downtown by Route 29, the crescent-moon-shaped tract of land hosts a minor league baseball stadium, a nightclub, an underutilized park and a handful of state agency offices. Employees overwhelmingly drive to the area and, when there’s not a game going on, leave it nearly empty after 5 o’clock.

Last month, a bill that would require those agencies to move downtown and free up their buildings for commercial waterfront development cleared the New Jersey Legislature’s Commerce and Economic Development Committee, a move Assemblyman Reed Gusciora sees as the first step to revitalization. He’s less hopeful that Route 29, long the subject of redesign studies, might be removed anytime soon.

“If you look at urban revitalization efforts around the country, much of it takes place on the waterfront,” he says. “Unfortunately … we have waterfront buildings that are harbored by the Department of Education, the IT department, and they add little benefit to the city landscape.”

He wants to see those agencies remain in Trenton, just move downtown to the Capital District area. The number of state employees in Trenton has decreased by half in recent years — from roughly 40,000 to 20,000 — leaving plenty of office space away from the waterfront.

That move would allow the city to try to attract mixed-use developments to the water’s edge instead. Once a manufacturing and industrial hub — hence the slogan emblazoned on the Lower Trenton Bridge — Trenton’s waterfront hosted steel mills and shipping ports before state departments and sports. The factories closed throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the highway-ification of Route 29 in the 1950s cut off the waterfront from the rest of the city. A 1990s improvement project added a tunnel south of the baseball stadium intended to divert truck traffic off city streets onto Route 29.

But since 9/11, Homeland Security forbids trucks from using it, leaving the $80 million tunnel obsolete save for one feature — it’s topped by a park that few currently use. “It’s really a bridge from the city to the riverbank, but because we don’t develop it, nobody really uses the park,” Gusciora says.

Removing Route 29 might be the key to increasing residents’ and developers’ interest in the area. Studies dating back to at least 1988 have explored replacing the highway with a boulevard, an idea that surges in popularity and interest in tandem with city coffers. According to the Congress for the New Urbanism, which named Route 29 as one of its 2017 “Freeways Without Futures,” replacing the highway with a surface street could open up access to 18 acres of developable land.

Despite a 2005 feasibility study, the concept languished after the 2008 recession. Then last year, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a metropolitan organization that also covers Philadelphia and Camden, issued a $100,000 grant for the Downtown Trenton Waterfront Reclamation Redevelopment Project to explore the boulevard idea again.

“I’ve yet to see any city, small or large, that hasn’t reaped great benefit by having a waterfront that was locked away by a highway opened up, or an industrial use that was decaying opened up for public use and enjoyment,” says Roland Lewis, executive director of the Waterfront Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on waterways and shorelines in New York and New Jersey. There’s San Francisco, which removed one of its waterfront highways in the 1990s, replacing it with public space. Seattle is in the process of doing the same.

“These cities were created because of the commerce that the waterfronts allowed,” says Lewis. Removing a highway can present challenges to state and regional mobility, but on the whole, he says, “the city gains.”

Still, even local supporters like Gusciora and George Sowa, CEO of economic development group Greater Trenton, don’t expect that transformation to start anytime soon. It’s too expensive, they say, and New Jersey’s Department of Transportation agrees.

“Realigning a highway would be a costly endeavor,” said NJDOT in a statement. “The Department must use its limited resources in the most efficient and effective way possible, with a priority given to ensuring the safety of New Jersey’s roads and bridges and maintaining these assets in a state of good repair.”

So Sowa is putting his energy into courting the development and investment communities, massaging their image of Trenton as a struggling, postindustrial city into one of an affordable, walkable community that might be attractive to young people and seniors. And Gusciora is focusing on moving the state agencies, a step he calls “more realistic” than redesigning Route 29 right now.

“I think the time is right because people are ready to reinvest into cities,” he says. Asked whether developers might be turned off because of the waterfront’s disconnect from the rest of downtown, Gusciora says he thinks they’d see the property’s value. And he hopes that successful waterfront development might encourage the state to kick in funds for the boulevard.

First, the state agencies need to go. Gusciora’s bill will next go before the full assembly, where he expects it to pass.

Temporary Alleyway Art Feeds Chattanooga Park Makeover

Visitors walk through the Garden Grass (Inversions) installation, by Team GFB, in downtown Chattanooga. (Credit: River City Company)

As Chattanooga continues its bid to entice housing developers, residents and employers downtown, and prepares to renovate its primary park later this year, temporary art installations in alleyways are highlighting how public space is a critical piece of that puzzle.

The Passageways project, initiated by economic development nonprofit River City Company and AIA Tennessee, asked five artist-architect-designer teams to turn four underutilized alleyways into inviting, interactive environments.

One alley hosts both a sound installation and a series of sculptures that mimic the movement of the stars. In another, visitors walk below the “Urban Chandelier,” a sparkling curtain of reflective triangles that catches and projects natural light onto the floor and walls; another hosts a gently swaying forest of suspended bamboo.

The most popular installation, Neural Alley, consists of painted wooden blocks like pixels that can be moved around in peg boards on either side of the alley to spell out words or create pictures and designs. Cameras capture the movement every 16 minutes, creating a record of all the iterations.

The Neural Alley installation, by Revenge of the Electric Women (Credit: River City Company)

It’s simple, but interactive and engaging, which is exactly the goal of Passageways, says Amy Donahue, River City Company’s director of marketing and communications. “Space is limited. … How can we create more with it?” she asks.

For many years, as Chattanooga’s downtown housed employers but few residents, public space was not a priority. Revitalization efforts in the 1990s spurred the development of large parks along the city’s waterfront, but “the public space formed really as more tourist related,” says Jenny Park, Chattanooga’s strategic capital planner. “The housing that we’re seeing come online downtown is really shifting what the public space needs are.”

Just 2 percent of Chattanooga’s population lives in the city center, but there’s been a steady increase in development and residents: Between 2013 and the end of 2017, the downtown population is expected to double. Chattanooga’s Innovation District is also drawing new businesses, and spurring a market for dense, walkable housing. A 2014 River City Company plan for spurring City Center development estimated the area could support over 900 residential units — provided other amenities like grocery stores and park spaces were developed to support them.

Now a redesign is in the works for Miller Park, the city’s central park, and Miller Plaza, a private space owned by River City Company right across the street. The two spaces, though adjacent and often used in concert for large events, are separated by a busy roadway, and Miller Park goes underutilized because of its dated design. It’s below street level, a feature intended to give parkgoers respite from traffic, but which serves to cut off the park from the city as well.

The redesign would bring Miller Park up to street grade and use a planted median and continuous paving to link the park and plaza. That would make it easier to block off the street between them when they host joint events, like the free Night Fall concert series River City Company runs every summer Friday. A third nearby public space, Patten Parkway, would also get a makeover with an outdoor cafe, market and seating area.

The Miller Park/Miller Plaza redesign (Credit: City of Chattanooga)

With construction slated to begin this year, Donahue says one goal of the Passageways project was to “get ahead of the renovation of Miller Park and make it habit for people to enjoy public space in City Center, because that’s not necessarily something that happens right now.” The alleys, which are privately owned by the adjacent buildings, play host to formal events like poetry readings and attract informal visitors who just happen to be passing by.

“It’s exciting to have things for people to stumble across as they’re walking. That’s part of the downtown experience,” says Park.

Installed in August in time for the 2016 AIA Tennessee meeting, the alley installations are now in their midlife, and River City Company is trying to figure out what should happen next. The installations were only intended to last a year, but “now the expectation is that those spaces are there and they’re usable,” says Donahue. Come summer, River City Company will decide whether the installations can take the wear and tear of another year outside, or hold another call for artists to replace them. The project may also expand to include more alleys in the area.

“One of the things we wanted to do was change perception,” she says, the same goal behind a River City Company project to install art and technology in 19 vacant City Center storefronts in 2014. The project came to an end because all of those storefronts were eventually leased out. Donahue hopes Passageways sets the stage for future transformations too.

“We’re very excited about what’s going to happen at Miller Park in Chattanooga,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to take years and a million dollars of capital campaigns to create special places in your city.”

How Cities Can Take Vision Zero to the Next Level in 2017

(Photo by Haymarketrebel via Flickr)

Vision Zero shorthand boils down the initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities to three E’s: education, enforcement and engineering. But expanding Vision Zero in the U.S., where low-income communities and communities of color are both more likely to be injured or killed in traffic and to be targeted by law enforcement, requires grappling with other fundamentals.

A new brief from the Prevention Institute lays out a Vision Zero road map rooted in health equity, a framework that calls for identifying and eliminating the underlying causes of traffic fatality inequities. It’s no coincidence that in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color inadequate public investment correlates with disproportionate rates of both traffic collisions and preventable diseases like diabetes.

“To work from a health equity lens you need to look at the root causes,” says Elva Yanez, co-author and director of health equity at the Los Angeles-based Prevention Institute. “Look at the policies, practices and norms that have allowed these disparities to arise in the first place.”

Rather than launching Vision Zero by trying to crack down on individual behaviors through education and enforcement, the authors suggest starting with an honest assessment: How are resources currently distributed among neighborhoods? What land use patterns are contributing to traffic deaths? Who is most impacted by traffic violence? Who are the most valuable potential partners within neighborhoods to work on reduction?

Determining the “who” starts with breaking down the data. “If you can’t say with precision how traffic safety problems or disparities are greater in a specific community, then it’s very difficult to go from there to address interventions,” says Yanez. But in surveying L.A. and other cities’ Vision Zero approaches, the researchers found that in many instances, cities weren’t disaggregating their data to pinpoint which racial, ethnic and economic groups were most affected.

Manal Aboelata, co-author and managing director at the Prevention Institute, says this is a step cities can take wherever they are in their Vision Zero process. Gathering that data might require more collaboration among agencies.

“The approach that Vision Zero should take is a multisector approach,” says Yanez. Transportation departments are crucial to changing street designs and traffic regulations, but nearly every city agency is implicated in the creation and maintenance of the policies and built environments that contribute to traffic inequities. Aboelata says this is another step cities can take anywhere in their process: assessing what factors are making certain corridors and intersections less safe.

Neighborhoods attracting new development are more likely to get routine upgrades to their infrastructure, for example, as developers pay for new sidewalks, crosswalks and other amenities. Neighborhoods without investment don’t benefit from such improvements. Land uses like high-speed arterials and higher concentrations of liquor stores and bars contribute to unsafe driving behaviors, and tend to be clustered in low-income neighborhoods.

“As we’re getting to the origins of the problem, we have the opportunity to solve multiple problems at once,” says co-author Rebekah Kharrazi. The brief recommends engaging community members in the process from the start by having them lead city officials on walk audits. In Los Angeles, the Prevention Institute helped organize three. Aboelata says the tours can be the start of a two-way conversation: Officials can see the neighborhood through residents’ eyes and hear which factors — like fear of violence — impact safety beyond road conditions.

Residents can learn which agencies are responsible for which problems and what solutions are available. They may not be aware, for example, that speed bumps aren’t the only option for calming traffic, that more beautiful features like planters and bulbouts are possible.

Getting this kind of community buy-in is crucial from the start, the authors agree, particularly when it comes to enforcement.

“Because of the history of police discrimination and biased practices [in low-income and majority-minority communities], that’s a challenge that needs to be overcome if one of your E’s is enforcement,” says Yanez.

One way to engage residents early is to work with existing community organizations, and to support them through micro-grants or other funding.

“Although traffic safety is really important, groups working in communities of color might be focused on other more front-burner or pressing issues,” says Aboelata. But they have the trust of the community, the relationships and the historical knowledge that if given resources, they may be able to expand their work to traffic safety.

The authors point to Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles as cities that have made strides toward some of these goals. Seattle, for example, has a strong racial equity framework, and has been proactive in surveying high-crash corridors without waiting for citizen complaints. But just this week, Los Angeles’ Vision Zero Alliance published a letter responding to the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, calling out familiar shortcomings: no solid community engagement plan, a lack of data transparency and the absence of a commitment to curb racial profiling.

Yanez, Aboelata, and Kharrazi caution that without these factors, Vision Zero is likely to falter. Successful public health campaigns to curb smoking and promote seat belt use relied on changing norms so the public would carry on the mantle once marketing blitzes quieted down.

“When the initiative isn’t there, what you need is people in community still excited about it,” says Aboelata. “The torch needs to be passed from city agencies to community-rooted organizations so this can really carry on until we get to zero.”

What’s Behind Your Airport’s New Nonstop Route

Port Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio (Photo by Sam Howzit via Flickr)

From tourists to business travelers and even new residents, airports are one of the first pieces of urban infrastructure many are likely to encounter in a city. This makes them vital tools for economic development — selling points for companies considering a move to a region, and job generators in their own right.

Yet while corporate subsidies make headlines, the public remains largely unaware of the competition airports undertake to lure airlines to launch flights to hot destinations. That new nonstop route from your city to San Francisco that’s advertised all across the subway? Chances are, the airline didn’t pay for that ad — the airport did, as part of an incentive package to entice the airline to take a risk on a new market.

Megan Ryerson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has published a series of papers delving into the connection between airports and economic development and urban competition. She says for an airport in an already growing city, offering airlines $75,000 to $1 million in marketing and waived fees to launch a new route may be savvy economic development. But for smaller airports, particularly those sharing metro regions with larger, wealthier cities, Ryerson says that money might be better spent on the amenities that make cities good places to live and visit.

There’s just one problem: Airports aren’t allowed to spend these funds that way.

In the U.S., the vast majority of airports are public entities, owned by the city, county or a regional body like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Airports generate both aeronautical revenue, which includes fees paid by airlines for use of runways and gates, and non-aeronautical revenue such as parking payments, rental car fees, a cut of concessionaires’ profits and more. (This is, incidentally, why Uber and Lyft have been anathema to airports: They don’t pay the fees that taxis do.)

The latter revenue covers the airports’ operating costs. Until the early 1990s, cities that owned their airports also frequently comingled non-aeronautical revenue with the general coffers to pay for urban infrastructure like fire departments. But in the early 1990s, with U.S. airlines struggling, Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration limited use of non-aeronautical revenue to the airport itself. A few years later, after heavy lobbying from the airlines, the FAA decided airports could also use that money to waive landing fees, pay for route marketing and otherwise offer incentives to airlines to launch new nonstop routes.

This can be in both airports’ and airlines’ best interests. Landing fees are determined by the cost of airport operations divided by the number of flights landing there. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, a large facility with a large flight volume, airlines pay 66 cents per 1,000 pounds of aircraft weight. But at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, which has aggressively expanded its facilities without greatly boosting flight volume, airlines pay over $10 per 1,000 pounds of aircraft weight.

“If an airport expands their runways, then they’ve just made the cost go up,” says Ryerson. “So unless they encourage new flights, everybody’s landing fee just went up.” Incentives are one way to attract new flights, so long as they stick around once the subsidy runs out. The FAA only allows airports to waive fees and pay for marketing for up to two years.

Between 2012 and the first quarter of 2015, about 30 U.S. airports spent $171.5 million on incentives programs. Yet according to Ryerson, 40 percent of the routes launched in that time ended when the incentives did. “Forty percent of the routes came in, took the money and left,” she says. “Think of that from an economic development [standpoint]. Forty percent of $171 million — that is a lot of money for an economic development program that yielded very little.”

That’s not to say incentives programs don’t have their place, says Ryerson. Dallas and Miami have been very successful enticing and retaining flights. So has Austin, a fast-growing city that’s attracted businesses like Facebook with multiple headquarters across the country. But San Antonio, right down the road, lost almost all of the routes it offered incentives for in that period, and thus nearly all of the money it spent on them. With the Texas cities so close together, the demand isn’t there for a nonstop flight from San Antonio to Paris if Austin already has it.

“Everybody wants to be a big important global city,” says Ryerson, and cities see big, important, international airports as the way to get there. This can lead to abuse of the incentives system: Instead of trying to attract routes for which demand exists, airports focus on flashy destinations that are promising in theory.

In an ideal scenario, nonstop international flights could entice foreign businesses to open U.S. headquarters, so airports might court service to Hamburg or Vienna. Nonstop domestic flights could also encourage business relocation and attract new residents, and there’s always the local economic development generated by jobs and businesses related to the airport itself.

But Ryerson says in cases like San Antonio and Austin, or San Jose and Oakland, regional airport planning would probably be a better fix: Instead of expanding and using incentives to attract redundant, high-profile flights, nearby airports might work together to spread demand around the region.

“This is a one-size-fits-all policy that is working for the 1 percent of airports,” she says.

One unexpected city where incentives are working as they should? Columbus, Ohio. “I believe that Columbus is Austin seven years ago,” says Ryerson. A growing city, Columbus would likely see air traffic increase naturally without intervention over the next decade, but the incentives are helping to spur it along. Ryerson holds up Columbus as an example of both transparency and intentionality. Whereas Austin was reticent to discuss its program with her, the Port Columbus International Airport (CMH) publishes a handy guide.

That document shows that Columbus’ program is rooted in the data: the number of passengers currently flying between Columbus and any given destination on an indirect route. Airlines become eligible for incentives if they are offering a new direct route to a location frequented by 50 passengers or more per day. Extra incentives kick in when daily passengers exceed 100. Both new airlines to CMH and any airlines willing to provide service to a target market are eligible for the incentives, which could include between $25,000 and $100,000 in in-kind marketing and up to 12 months of waived landing fees, depending on the service. As a result, Columbus’ program has focused on routes to Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, over flashier offerings like London or Tokyo (though international routes are also eligible).

“We don’t put out incentives to carriers or we wouldn’t propose incentives to a market that we didn’t think was viable long-term,” says David Whitaker, CMH’s chief commercial officer. He says in his experience, airlines aren’t shopping around for subsidies. Nearly all of the routes CMH offered incentives for over the past decade-plus have remained, with the exception of Jet Blue, which left after the subsidies ran out for reasons unrelated to the market, and an airline that folded before the incentive period ended. CMH was able to recoup 90 percent of the waived fees in the bankruptcy process.

But Ryerson’s research shows that not every airport is using its incentives well, and that air service isn’t the route to economic development for every city. Before the FAA changed the rules around non-aeronautical revenue, Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates Los Angeles International, caught a lot of flak for diverting LAX funds to pay for marketing the city to tourists, and on police, fire, and ambulance services. The lack of transparency and oversight was roundly criticized, but Ryerson wonders whether the intention might not be noble.

“Could cities use this money to be a better version of themselves?” she asks. Airports can currently use their non-aeronautical revenue to fund transit expansions to the airport. What if they could use it on urban mobility more broadly? Or on programs to spur business development within the city? Or on any number of factors that make cities good places to work, visit and live?

Without changes to FAA regulation, none of this is possible. At the very least, Ryerson would like to see airports increase transparency around their incentives programs. “People have no idea,” she says, “and there are millions of dollars at stake.”

Pa. Lawmakers May Strengthen Democracy for Small Cities

Reading, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jack via Flickr)

The first sign I had entered Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district read “State Game Lands 52, Safe Hunting.” Forest engulfed the roadway, and then gave way to rolling farms dotted with silos and barns, and later, neat Lancaster County subdivisions sharing fences with grazing fields.

In a library in Ephrata, a rural suburb of Lancaster, an older woman told me she didn’t know a thing about her congressional district. A mother and son in the parking lot of a diner down the road said the same. But when I described the boundaries of their district all three agreed: It did seem strange that Reading, a postindustrial city in Berks County, 22 miles up the road, would be lumped in and share a representative in Washington, D.C., with the farmlands and farmers of Lancaster County.

“The differences between what Reading and [the city of] Lancaster need, and what Ephrata and Brunnerville need, that is a little different,” said Ephrata resident Isaac Boots. Inside Gus’s Keystone Family Restaurant, an older gentleman and lifelong conservative shook his head and laughed when I told him that Berks County was in fact split between four districts, and that none of its representatives at the federal level lives in the county. “Local politics ain’t so local anymore,” he said.

Carol Kuniholm, of the League of Women Voters and Fair Districts PA, agrees. She’s been preaching about the dangers of gerrymandering for over a year. Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered districts are notorious for their cartoonish shapes, disregard for existing geopolitical boundaries like county lines, and transparently political aims to create safe Republican and safe Democratic districts.

Across the U.S., states redraw their congressional districts every 10 years, based on new census data. In Pennsylvania, the majority party in the state legislature controls the lines on that map — thus ensuring that party’s dominance until the next redistricting. That’s how District 7 was formed in 2011, a meandering entity that pays no heed to natural boundaries in its quest to create a safe Republican majority. Or take District 16, which largely coheres to Lancaster County lines and then — seemingly arbitrary — sends out tentacles to snag Oxford and Coatesville in the east and Reading in the north.

Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district, among the most gerrymandered in the U.S. (Credit: One Million Scale project)

Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district. Reading is in green at top right. (Credit: One Million Scale project)

Gerrymandering, charges Judy Schwank, a state senator who represents the city of Reading at the state capital, “dilutes Reading’s ability to gain any kind of political power in terms of representation. No matter who is representing that particular district, they have a much larger portion of population in Lancaster County, which is much more Republican-leaning, which allows them to kind of ignore the needs of Reading itself. And this is a city with quite a few needs. We’re one of the poorest urban areas in the country.” Reading also has the country’s most underfunded school district.

Schwank and other reps in the state capital of Harrisburg are ready to change this process — and if they succeed in making the system fairer, that could be good news for smaller postindustrial Pennsylvania cities like Reading. They’ve introduced bills with bipartisan support that would fix the way the U.S. congressional districts are drawn by establishing an independent citizens commission. (Pennsylvania’s state legislature lines are determined by a political commission.) Eleven citizens — four each from the two major parties and three unaffiliated or independent voters — plus a commission chair would draw districts using current mapping and data software, but without access to information about party affiliation, past voting or where incumbents live. All data fed into their mapping process would be open to the public.

​The maps would be presented in public hearings where residents could propose changes. A supermajority of the commission would be needed for adoption. Aggrieved citizens could challenge the final maps in court, as they can now, but at no point would elected officials get to reject or approve them. Similar measures have been adopted successfully in California and Arizona. Another possible reform proposed in one of the bills would follow the state legislature redistricting method of using a political commission, but it would bind the politicians more strictly to creating compact, contiguous districts.

Though it may be politically dangerous in the short term to advocate for such changes, Kuniholm believes in the long term it’s in politicians’ best interest. She stresses that both parties have used the flawed system to their advantage. It’s designed to yo-yo back and forth: With Pennsylvania’s next redistricting commission likely to be led by Democrats, Republicans might be swayed to support redistricting reform now, before Democrats use the same old weighted system to tip the scales back in their favor.

“This is a bad game and everybody loses,” says Kuniholm.

Districts that don’t conform to communities of interest, she says, are hard to represent. Sprawling districts that spread over mountain ranges and rivers may take hours to cross. And the system puts all of the power in party leadership’s hands: If a district is a safe bet for a Republican, the only real competition is in the primary. That tends to push candidates into more extreme views, allows party leadership to sway results by throwing support behind favored candidates, and opens the door for vicious smear campaigns. It doesn’t help that Pennsylvania has some of the least transparent campaign finance laws in the U.S.

Kuniholm also says that while a direct connection can’t be drawn between poverty and school funding on the one hand and gerrymandering on the other, “historically places that are well represented have thriving economies and populations that flourish.” And places that don’t have good representation? They struggle.

That includes the residents of Reading, where 44 percent live below the poverty line.

Driving up Route 222 from Ephrata as though I were an elected official out to survey my district, I discovered I actually had to hop off the highway and take back roads for a few miles just to stay in the 16th. The first sign I’d entered Reading was a blinking traffic billboard: “Mayor Wally Scott Welcomes You to the City of Positive Change.”

Before the 2016 presidential election, Kuniholm had been told over and over that redistricting reform was too wonky, too complicated — impossible, perhaps. But since then, she has been overwhelmed with support. The week after the inauguration, she gave a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd of over 800 people in a Philadelphia church. The following week, 400 turned out to hear her in Allentown. If a citizens commission were introduced, Schwank says that kind of interest would need to be sustained.

L.A. Food Truck Project Shows Trickiness of Healthy Eating

(Photo by Elina Mark)

Customers at a Los Angeles lonchera — a Latin American food truck — can order carnitas, quesadillas and burritos. Why not their government-recommended daily serving of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains?

A recent project of the RAND Corporation recruited 11 lonchera owners to modify their menus to include at least one meal that meets the federal MyPlate standards: 1 cup of vegetables, a half cup of fruit, 1 to 5 ounces of whole grains, no more than 3 ounces of meat or an equivalent source of protein, and about a cup of dairy (yogurt, milk or cheese). Researchers wanted to know how receptive food truck owners were to adopting healthier options, how profitable they could be, and whether they’d be popular among customers.

“Knowing we have a government that doesn’t necessarily care about what people are faced with and all the obstacles they have to overcome to stay healthy, I wanted to explore the possibility that food outlets would voluntarily provide options that don’t make people sick,” says Deborah Cohen, the lead author on the RAND study. Cohen wrote the 2014 book “A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic — and How We Can End It.”

Before the study, researchers found, most of the loncheras were serving way too much meat for the national guidelines (6 ounces or more, double the daily recommendation), not enough fruits and vegetables, and refined grains instead of whole ones. Overall, an estimated 94 percent of all meals in the most popular U.S. chain restaurants don’t meet national dietary guidelines. Cohen says while consumers are free to make their own choices, when food providers only serve options out of line with nutritional standards, they put customers at risk.

“Human nature is such that people don’t make their food decisions thinking of the long term. They make it on impulse,” she says. “The way to stop the obesity epidemic and prevent chronic diseases is to change the food environment, because we can’t change human nature.”

The intractable nature of habit was evidenced in the study. Of the 464 lonchera owners contacted by mail to participate in the study, none responded, and of the 23 ultimately enrolled, many had not changed their menus in 20 years. Over the course of the project, three dropped out because they considered the program too much of a burden. Two more lost contact with researchers; four had to be excluded because they failed to renew their business licenses; one sold his business and another shuttered because of truck troubles.

The remaining owners received ample support to make the menu changes. Bilingual nutritionists helped them develop over 50 new meal options that met the MyPlate guidelines, and the researchers offered free photography and posters to advertise the new meals. Participating owners also received $2 coupons to give to customers to incentivize purchases, help creating and updating Yelp pages, and a $250 incentive.

The resulting meals were colorful, healthful and well-liked among customers who tried them. Over 95 percent of 488 customers surveyed said the MyPlate meals — or Comida Perfecta in Spanish — “looked tasty.” Of those who bought one, 97 percent said they’d recommend them to others and 97 percent said they’d buy them again.

But again, habit reigned. The majority of customers said they ate at their particular lonchera at least once a week, and nearly 60 percent said they ordered their “usual” or came to the lonchera to order a specific item. The meals weren’t as popular at the taquerias or seafood trucks, which customers mostly visited for smaller snacks. The healthy meals were more popular in white-collar business and residential areas, and less in industrial parts of town. The biggest complaint, somewhat ironically, was that the healthy meals offered too much food.

In all, researchers estimated La Comida Perfecta meals made up about 2 percent of sales, roughly equivalent to other meal options, but lonchera owners reported selling a higher percentage and many told researchers they believed the meals had helped attract new customers. Ultimately, 75 percent said they’d keep offering the new meals, according to RAND.

To Cohen, the study proves that providing at least one healthy option doesn’t need to be difficult. But absent the kind of incentives these food trucks received, she thinks legislative action is necessary.

“We’ve done this on every other public health issue,” she says, citing requirements for air bags and seat belts in cars, and rigorous building standards for houses. “Most restaurants won’t make changes voluntarily.” A regulation could require that restaurants offer just one meal that meets MyPlate standards, she posits.

“Just one meal that doesn’t put you at risk of chronic disease. I mean how hard would that be?” she asks. “All of these loncheras could do it.”

But her own study doesn’t quite bear that out. Many owners ended up serving too much meat, or insufficient fruits or veggies, or had difficulty sourcing whole grain products, especially whole wheat burrito-size tortillas. Some found brown rice too hard to make correctly, and that customers wanted the white rice anyway, “so they ended up throwing away most of the brown rice at the end of the day,” the study notes. It does not note the cost of the wasted product.

The cost estimates also do not take into account additional labor, like sticking to stricter measurements or slicing and sourcing fresh fruits. Cohen recognizes that some of the requirements could be loosened in order to increase participation: Loncheras could use dried fruits instead of fresh, and the dairy requirement could be cut — it was hard to make culturally appropriate dairy additions to ceviche, anyway.

Cohen’s observation that customers are swayed by their food environment also shows up in the study in the dubious statement that consumers are swayed by “superficial characteristics like quantity, price, placement of food on menus and menu boards or other contextual factors of which individuals may not be consciously aware.” Item placement superficial? Absolutely. But quantity and price? Hardly irrelevant to budget-constrained consumers.

Still, Cohen insists, “I don’t think it’s as big a burden as people are making it sound.” Food trucks and other restaurants are already held to stringent hygiene standards. If they were required to serve at least one nutritionally sound meal, Cohen says regulators could check up on that too. Staff turnover also contributed to drifting adherence to the healthy recipes; better training could help.

If it worked, it could have big implications. There were 2,580 licensed food trucks in L.A. in 2013, and an estimated 2,000 unlicensed ones, not to mention the 26,000 restaurants. Customers would just need to be willing to try something new.

Gentrification Threatens Vancouver Sex Workers

A 2011 protest against a commission charged with investigating disappearances of people from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Many of the missing were sex workers. (Photo by Caelie_Frampton via Flickr)

The silver lining of gentrification, we are often told, is safety: As neighborhoods become wealthier, they not only get more public investment and better amenities, they also see increases in police attention and decreases in crime that will benefit long-term residents if they can afford to stay.

It’s already a fraught hypothesis. An increase in affluent white residents may just lead to more police profiling that disproportionately affects people of color. Falling crime might be spurring gentrification, not the other way around.

Now a new study out of Vancouver found that for at least one population, gentrification contributed to decreased safety and an increased risk of violence. Trans sex workers in the city’s developing Downtown Eastside are facing more harassment from law enforcement, private security guards and new residents, while being forced to work in more isolated, more dangerous areas.

Vancouver has been here before. The city purged sex workers from the West End in the 1980s, only to later acknowledge that scattering the community made them easier victims. Today, it is legal to sell sex in Canada but illegal to buy it, advertise for it or to make money off sex workers’ labor (that includes an escort hiring an accountant, by the way). But as development and rents continue to soar in Vancouver, moral values and property values dovetail when it comes to sex work.

“The moral panic of sex work is definitely at play when it comes to gentrification,” says Jill Chettiar, a research coordinator for the project, published by the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE). “It’s also this social construct of what comprises a good versus bad neighborhood.”

The Downtown Eastside has long been known as a sex work stroll, but gentrification brings with it middle-class values, which are being retroactively imposed on current residents. Whereas sex workers could once look for clients on the neighborhood’s commercial streets, they are now getting pushed into residential and light industrial areas. They are also taking clients to more isolated places, like along railroad tracks, where they have a harder time escaping violent clients or calling for help.

“Gentrification creates increased risk of visibility or observation from new community members that may be uncomfortable with sex workers living and working in their community, [which] has pushed sex work further into secluded areas,” says Brenna Bezanson, communications coordinator and community liaison at PACE, a peer-led organization working with and for sex workers in Vancouver. (A former PACE employee co-authored the new paper.)

One study participant told researchers she felt frustrated by this judgment from new residents, and by their willingness to call the police. “She has been working there for over 15 years and is a business owner herself in her line of work,” the paper states. “Sex workers are a part of the neighbourhood as workers and many also live in the area; however they are framed as outside, or not belonging, to the neighbourhood.” Discussing new residents’ hostility, she asked, “Well, why did you move here?”

Researchers interviewed 33 sex workers for the study, the majority of whom were indigenous and all of whom identified as either transgender, transsexual, genderqueer or two-spirit. They also conducted walking interviews with several sex workers to assess how changes to the built environment were affecting their working conditions.

A hole in a railroad fence made by sex workers as an escape strategy against violent clients (Photo by Tara Lyons)

During the course of the study, businesses installed gates over their entrances, including over alcoves in which sex workers had gathered to get out of the rain and do their makeup. Calls to cops from new business owners increased. The researchers documented places where sex workers took clients along railroad tracks, and where they had cut holes in fences in case they needed to escape.

A road construction project that changed the traffic pattern also caused a major disruption. Suddenly streets on which potential clients could easily have pulled over had bumper to bumper traffic — too many observers to make an arrangement. More sex workers were being stopped for minor or perceived violations, and both police and private security forces were shining lights or parking on popular corners.

This contributed to a cascading decline in safety and solidarity. Those not internet-savvy enough or without the access to advertise online still had to work the streets for clients. But the increased scrutiny led to greater competition between sex workers for fewer safe spaces, and led some workers to lower their prices to undercut the others.

Whereas sex workers had previously worked together to keep an eye on each other and enforce condom use and fair prices with clients across the board, “that becomes more and more fractured the farther people need to go and the less conspicuous people need to make themselves,” says Chettiar. “It’s really market pressure that ends up eating away at that [solidarity].”

All of these factors ratchet up risk. Because it is illegal to purchase sex or to publicly communicate about purchasing sex in Canada, the increased scrutiny led sex workers to get into cars with clients before discussing rates or conditions. And while cisgender and trans sex workers alike have been pushed from their usual locations, “these kinds of pressures are felt more acutely and with greater effect by people who are part of these more marginalized sectors of already marginalized communities,” says Chettiar.

Over the years the city has had a shifting, unspoken geography of sex work. After the crackdown on the West End, the Downtown Eastside became known for trans sex workers. The development pressure is changing that in dangerous ways. “If a client picks up a trans sex worker and doesn’t realize she’s a trans worker, and that gets discovered later when they’re parked in a car in an isolated area, the risk of violence is huge,” Chettiar says.

A makeshift shelter built by sex workers to service clients, documented by researchers (Photo Chrissy Taylor)

Gentrification has also impacted sex workers’ ability to work safely from home. “What we know, and all of the evidence indicates, is working indoors, working from home is much, much safer than working on the street level,” says Bezanson.

But many of the former single-room-occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside were converted to hotels or hostels around the 2010 Winter Olympics. And those that remain are being fixed up and sold as “micro-lofts” at rents above $1,000 a month.

“We have members that are waiting months, or in some cases have been on wait lists for housing for over a year,” says Bezanson. “Shelters are full, all the time, and trying to get someone into even a temporary short-term shelter can be nearly impossible.” When sex workers do gain access to government-supported social housing, guest restrictions ensure they still can’t work from home, and risk losing their housing if they do.

“The rest of us would not tolerate living in a building where someone was telling us who we can have over and when,” says Bezanson.

Compared to other cities, Vancouver has at least taken strides to recognize the needs of sex workers, and acknowledge the ways city policy has hurt them. A memorial was erected in the West End last fall honoring the sex workers who were driven away by the 1980s anti-prostitution crusade. Some of these workers later fell victim to serial killer Robert Pickton and others who preyed on sex workers on the Downtown Eastside. Over 60 women, many of them indigenous, disappeared from the neighborhood from the 1980s to 2002.

Both Bezanson and Chettiar would like to see further steps from the city. Vancouver has been a leader in harm reduction when it comes to substance abuse, legalizing safe injection sites for drug users. But “it does seem it’s been harder in public discourse to find that safe place in the moral quagmire surrounding sex work and the sex work industry to start advocating for what we might think of as harm reduction measures,” says Chettiar.

She recommends that the city realistically appraise all of the economic activity in a neighborhood — legal, semi-legal and otherwise — before approving any projects, and then consult with marginalized workers for their perspective.

“Cities need to do a better job of speaking up and saying, we are all members of this community, and speaking out in support of the most marginalized people in our communities,” says Bezanson. Both agree that decriminalization is the ultimate ask, as it would allow sex workers to control the price of their labor, work from safe places and have recourse to the law. In its absence, Bezanson says, Vancouver could at least lift guest restrictions on social housing.

“That’s something that could happen right now, without decriminalization or passing any huge legislation. I think that the city could speak out about that right now and that would have a huge positive impact on sex workers’ safety,” she says.

USPS Could Tackle Food Insecurity

A post office converted into a food share station (Credit: First Class Meal)

If you’re an avid podcast listener, you’ve probably heard the pitch for, a website where users pay for and print postage from their own computers: “You’ll never have to go to the post office again.”

For many, as UPS, FedEx and Amazon have encroached on United States Postal Service turf and communication has gone digital, that’s already a reality. Since 2006, according to the USPS’s own numbers, revenues are down, employment is down, total mail volume is down and post office visits are declining. As a result, thousands of branches have closed or slashed hours over the past decade. Yet the buildings remain, and so does the postal delivery infrastructure.

Anu Samarajiva, Irum Javed, and Lanxi Zhang, students at Washington University and winners of the recent Urban SOS competition by engineering firm AECOM and urban design nonprofit Van Alen Institute, see that as an opportunity. The annual competition, which invites students to take on a global infrastructure challenge, focused this year on “Fair Share” and the so-called “sharing economy,” defined as using digital platforms to connect those with resources to those without. How, the proposal asked, could applying sharing economy principles to infrastructure support a more equitable distribution of public goods?

“The most obvious critique of the shared economy is that it really improves the life of a small portion of our population,” says Stephen Engblom, AECOM’s global cities director. “It helps the wealthy, but it doesn’t really help the challenged sectors of our populations.”

The winning proposal, First Class Meal, posited that post offices could remain relevant in a digital world by providing delivery and logistics for one of Los Angeles’ most pressing needs: food insecurity. Samarajiva had been in an L.A.-focused design studio, and along with Zhang and Javed, a public health student, was interested in food policy. Talking to food banks and other organizations battling urban hunger, they learned that while there is no lack of wasted food in the L.A. area, organizations struggle to pick up donations, store them and distribute to people in need.

(Credit: First Class Meal)

“We kind of had this realization that the post office still touches us all,” says Samarajiva. “It has this incredible network and connection to all of us as citizens, but it’s just what is it delivering now, how is it connecting us now?”

In the First Class Meal proposal, USPS would connect interested organizations. Postal drivers out on their normal routes would pick up donations of food from groups that collect them, deliver to food banks or pantries, and store food in post offices with excess capacity. The existing USPS app would direct drivers to where donations are waiting, just like a customer might use the app to schedule a package pickup today.

(Credit: First Class Meal)

“There are already a lot of organizations in a place like L.A. working on remediating food insecurity,” says Samarajiva. “We don’t want to duplicate that work. But we talked to them and realized there are gaps in how they are able to serve people. … The post office infrastructure would be used to fill those gaps.”

The team also imagined post offices and retrofitted trucks as food share stations. Trucks with cooling technology could go into food deserts as pop-up markets, while also giving residents the opportunity to weigh their mail, and buy postage stamps or food stamps. Or residents could go to the post office to pick up donations. The presentation includes a vision of redesigned post office boxes storing milk, bread, greens and other staples. (Who knew an extra-large P.O. box could contain 55 pounds of potatoes?)

(Credit: First Class Meal)

“There is some idea of a stigma with going to a food pantry, but [in this proposal] you’re just going to the post office,” says Samarajiva. “We wanted to normalize the idea because food insecurity is so prevalent.”

At first, she admits, the post office tackling hunger seems an unlikely juxtaposition, but it may be no more of a contradiction than the fact that 1 in 7.5 Los Angeles County residents work in the food system — but 1 in 6 experience food insecurity. In downtown L.A., a number of post offices are in food deserts, some of which, including the pilot location explored in the First Class Meal proposal, operate only on limited hours. Post offices are already expanding their capacity to deliver food in order to accommodate Amazon Fresh, a grocery delivery service.

(Credit: First Class Meal)

And, as the students learned, the National Association of Letter Carriers has held America’s largest one-day food drive every year since 1991, a fact that makes many postal workers immensely proud. In 2016, 4,232 L.A. USPS district members alone collected 1,523,525 pounds of food, the second-highest collection rate in the U.S. “This isn’t a venture that’s straying away from their current ventures at USPS,” says Javed.

The proposal sounds like it would strain staff and budgets though, and anyone who has stood in an endless post office line or waited days for a package that never arrived might be wary of heaping the USPS with more responsibility.

The First Class Meal designers say the food share stations in post offices could be staffed by volunteers from food service organizations, and that if the post office is already handling more grocery packages through Amazon Fresh, they can handle the increased load from food donations. They also hope expanding into food access work could shore up USPS branches from further closures, like the nearly 3,700 threatened and then walked back in 2011.

“I think by making them more of a staple in communities, by showing that they’re giving back, by distributing food to people in need, I think it makes a stronger case for the USPS,” says Javed.

So far, the USPS’s L.A. office has not officially commented on the plan. But by chance, L.A.’s director of planning and chief resilience officer were both jurors for the final competition, which was hosted in L.A., and both expressed interest in learning more, says Samarajiva.

And whether or not it’s implemented, the competition’s framing and finalists do shine a light on the inequity of most existing sharing economy platforms, and their unrealized potential. In October, two weeks after the Urban SOS semifinalists were announced, three drivers for Amazon Flex, an Uber-like delivery pilot for the logistics giant, filed a lawsuit saying they should be treated as employees rather than independent contractors.

Other finalists included an app that connects households in Durban with paid informal waste collectors and a project to map the needs and resources of residents in Quito’s self-governing indigenous territories in a bid to help them work more collectively.

7 Podcasts Urbanists Should Be Listening to Now

(Photo by Sascha Kohlmann via Flickr)

Podcasts, my editor wrote to me this week, are like “New Yorker” magazines: New ones are always piling up before you have a chance to appreciate the last one. As they’ve emerged over the past few years as a go-to medium for longform storytelling, unexpected takes on current events, and casual conversations among experts, celebrities, and besties, it seems there’s never enough time to listen to them all.

So I’ve rounded up a list, in no particular order, of the seven podcasts urbanists should be listening to right now, focusing not only on design and planning, but also on the economic systems that undergird our cities. I hope you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.

The Uncertain Hour, from Marketplace
An immersive documentary look at America’s welfare system 20 years after Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it,” The Uncertain Hour was my favorite podcast of 2016.

Produced by Marketplace’s Wealth and Poverty Desk and hosted by Krissy Clark, the show dives into the decisions that brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program and how it might have been otherwise. In one episode sure to leave your jaw on the floor, Clark asks, “Where do your welfare dollars actually go?” and finds in some states, more is spent on marriage counseling and college scholarships for the upper middle class than on cash assistance for families in poverty.

Listen to the whole season, though. The first episode, about a bureaucrat who creates a welfare mixtape, is a bizarro hoot.

Placemakers, from Slate
Placemakers, hosted by Rebecca Sheir, focuses each 30-minute episode on one project, one person or one city. In its first 18 episodes, the show has taken on some classic urbanist topics — fighting blight, reforming the suburbs, designing walkable places — but often with a thought-provoking twist. The most recent episode, for example, asks why a dense, mixed-use community developed according to New Urbanism best practices also feels, well, pretty creepy.

Another episode of interest to Next City readers: The Warrior on the Hill, which focuses on Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives, and her fight to increase the district’s political representation.

99 Percent Invisible, from Radiotopia
99 Percent Invisible is the classic design-centric podcast. Host Roman Mars and a slate of excellent producers do a great job of conveying design concepts without being able to resort to visuals — no small feat.

With shows on everything from the history of credit cards to the future of nuclear waste storage, this podcast takes on a wide range of design topics, many of which touch on urban life. The show’s website also offers up transcripts of episodes and a vast trove of (predictably well-designed) articles on places and stories not featured on the podcast — visuals included. Users can browse by topics including infrastructure, architecture and cities.

Some notable episodes in these categories: The Plat of Zion, which explores Salt Lake City’s urban grid and its relationship to Temple Square (which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints); Unpleasant Design and Hostile Urban Architecture, which takes aim at public projects meant to discourage public use; and Guerilla Public Service, which tells the story of a man who felt so strongly about a mistake on a Bay Area highway sign that he corrected it himself.

The Urbanist and Tall Stories, from Monocle 24
The Urbanist, a 30-minute show centered around a theme or topic, and Tall Stories, 5-minute minisodes that each explore “one building, one statue or one park bench that reveals something about our cities,” both take a notably more global approach than many other city-focused shows.

The most recent episode of the Urbanist, for example, spans the globe to look at unsightly architecture, from Belgrade’s attempts to retain architectural integrity after years of attacks, to a Spanish city’s mushroom sculptures to Paris’ divisive Centre Pompidou. The U.S. crops up from time to time too. This week’s Tall Stories: what changes President Donald Trump might make to the White House.

Planet Money, from NPR
While not a strictly urban show, Planet Money does a better job than most of explaining the economy. Their tagline: “Imagine you could call up a friend and say, ‘Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.’ Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening. That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.”

And it works. One episode asks why the housing voucher program is a lottery — and such an underfunded one — when SNAP and other welfare programs are not. Another shines a light on the battle between states to lure jobs using corporate subsidies. The episode homes in on Kansas City, which sits in both Missouri and Kansas; companies have been offered millions in tax breaks to move just a few blocks down the road.

Third Wave Urbanism
If conversational podcasts are more your style, Third Wave Urbanism is less slickly produced than the others on this list but has a casual, intimate feel more in the vein of the popular Call Your Girlfriend podcast. Urbanists Kristen Jeffers and Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman chat about what they call “the new normal of human-scale cities in today’s globalized world.”

The shows can be a little rambling. A conversation about suburban malls versus urban main streets veers into a discussion of the hosts’ own teenage years in malls, and the pilot about Pokemon Go and public space includes some early video game nostalgia. But, as both hosts come from an anthropology background, the show always circles back to its promise to discuss urbanism from a human perspective. It’s good to remember that’s what it’s ultimately about.

Candidate Confessional
Another not-strictly-urban podcast, Candidate Confessional has a conceit so simple and so smart I can’t believe I haven’t seen it before. In each episode, Sam Stein and Jason Cherkis talk to people who ran for political office and lost. Or as they put it, “the only podcast that actually celebrates people who tried to achieve power and failed.”

Many shows focus on presidential, gubernatorial and senate might-have-beens, but Next City readers might get a kick out of the episode “How the Hell Do You Lose to Rob Ford?” The hosts interview Andray Domise, who lost a council race to Ford, a notorious former mayor of Toronto, and in the process talk about the difference between Canadian and American politics and whether smear campaigns actually work.

Long Beach Launches Open Data Portal

Long Beach, California (Credit: City of Long Beach)

Last week, the city of Long Beach, California, launched an open data portal that aims to give citizens clear, visual information they can use. In addition to maps displaying police districts and liquefaction zones, and plotting the location of council offices, dog parks, and other city amenities, DataLB provides access to applications that put city data in context.

Developed with GIS software company Esri, DataLB’s applications focus on visualizing the impact of initiatives like Measure A, a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax increase that will fund $150 million worth of public investments over the next three years. Two applications on the site look at the impact of that investment on public safety and public infrastructure, the two main focuses of the spending.

“A Livable Long Beach” shows not only which street segments will receive repairs, but also explains the type of repair — slurry sealing — using before and after photos. A user can click on individual street segments to find out which roads will be fixed in fiscal year 2017, and learn about the citywide plan on the same page. The same goes for improvements to parking, libraries, public spaces and fire stations.

In Long Beach, says Mark Taylor, chief of staff to Mayor Robert Garcia, “that level of transparency has never been available before … . You can actually see pictures, you can see the whole picture at once.

Over 100 data sets now feed directly into the DataLB portal, and more are constantly being added. “The default is set to release, so there has to be a compelling reason not to release something,” says Taylor, like HIPAA regulations around releasing information on individuals’ health. Crime statistics will soon be added. Where possible, that data is rendered geospatially with the help of Esri or used to power applications or other more pointed data uses.

One of the next data sets to get that treatment will be the status of all business licenses in the city. A second website, BizPort, already walks residents through everything they need to know to open a business in Long Beach, and DataLB already hosts a map of business license information. Soon another new database, BizHub, will bring them together. Business improvement districts will have a special higher level of access so they can easily get a read on the health of their district. Taylor says making that data accessible not only makes it easier for residents to track their applications and for BIDs to take the pulse, but also frees up valuable time for city employees.

“Before that it was an analyst full time having to go in and manually look things up and generate monthly reports and send it,” he says. “Now it’s just there, updated daily.” Taylor also hopes that, as in Chicago, increasing access to municipal data will encourage a civic tech community to flourish, and possibly lead to the creation of businesses addressing problems the data brings to light.

All of that data is available uninterpreted and some of it will be contextualized through the applications, which Mike Sumich, Esri’s Long Beach account executive, says underscore the real value of the portal.

“You have to think about why people come to an open data portal in the first place,” he says. While some people will show up on the site curious just to poke around in city data, the majority, he says, will come because they’ve heard about a specific project and want to know what it means. Therein lies the purpose of the applications: to tell the public stories about the data they’re seeing.

That’s certainly not a bad thing. DataLB creates access to so much information and so many maps, it can be difficult to know where to start. The Measure A applications give a compelling reason to care about this data, and a straightforward way to track what the city is up to. But the applications also give the city ways to “control the story,” as Sumich puts it. The improvements touted under Measure A have not yet begun, but after work starts, what if the city doesn’t meet its goals? Can the tool also be used as a platform for spin?

Or take officer-involved shootings, an example Sumich brings up. Police departments tend to be wary of just putting information out there since “data can be confusing” and the public may “construe things from the data.” They often prefer a storytelling approach. But isn’t that the point of open data? To place trust in the public to construe what they will?

Of course, making data easier for people to understand is an admirable goal, and the uninterpreted data would remain. Telling stories around the data is just one way cities can encourage residents to interact with it. It’s just far from neutral.

Philadelphia Park Battle Highlights Public Space Stakes for Many Cities

Coryn Wolk (with sign) and others celebrate the lifting of the wall-sitting ban at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. (Photo by Jen Kinney)

Last week, Philadelphia erupted in a debate over equitable parks funding, marijuana use, and the policing and private management of public space. The spark: whether or not people should be permitted to sit on the limestone walls in the city’s central Rittenhouse Square.

The kerfuffle began Jan. 12, when “No Sitting on Wall” signs appeared and a spokesperson for the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a private group that manages the historic park, told the press, “Due to continuous vandalism and marijuana smoking, City Officials, Parks and Recreation, City Police, and the Friends determined it was in the Park’s best interest to no longer allow people to sit on the balustrade.”

That agreement had apparently been set in motion by a meeting four months prior, itself prompted by a recent shooting in Rittenhouse Square. Neighbors to the park — located in the highest-income area of the city — had the ear of Police Commissioner Richard Ross to complain about loitering, homeless people and, yes, pot smokers that seemed to concentrate around the walls. Soon a police cruiser was idling in the center of the park nearly every day, and then last week, though smoking both cigarettes and marijuana are already illegal in the park, the no-sitting signs went up.

Public response to the ban was swift and angry. A “sit-on” was organized for Jan. 17, a “Toke Back the Wall” event planned for Jan. 20, and a flurry of articles decried the city’s overreach and misguidedness in banning sitting to curtail public drug use. But then Mayor Jim Kenney seemed to end the ban via tweet.

Regarding Rittenhouse Square, I’m frustrated too. This government is very large and at times things just get by you. Sit where you want. ✌️

— Jim Kenney (@JimFKenney) January 15, 2017

But as architecture critic Inga Saffron pointed out in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the controversy is far from over. The issue at the heart of the conflict remains: A small group of wealthy citizens were able to exert their influence over a public park that draws residents from around the city without any public input, despite the fact that other Philadelphia parks have received far less care and been prone to far more violence.

Indeed, after the ban, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square released a statement suggesting that since the group had recently raised and spent $1 million to restore the limestone balustrades, they should have the right to deem them off-limits. The parks department released its own statement, which read in part, “the walls were not originally designed to be used for seating so this measure will further protect the structural integrity of these iconic park features.”

Those sentiments were shared by Vicky Bayle and Richard Branton, Rittenhouse Square residents and members of the Friends group who were walking through the park during a sit-on Tuesday. Though the mayor had already signaled the end of the ban, supporters had come out to use the space in celebration. Branton surveyed the roughly three dozen people chattering away respectfully on the walls, attended to by nearly as many journalists, and shook his head.

“The problem is not as cute as the media is making it out to be,” he said. Bayle agreed: These mostly young professionals eating their lunches and carrying signs are not the people she wants the police to disperse, those she describes as “drug dealers, people who hang out there day and night, harassing people, intimidating people who walk through there.” When asked if her concerns might not be rooted in racism or classism, she dismissed the idea — the wealthy people who live around the park could be buying drugs there too, she suggested.

Graffiti on Rittenhouse Square walls this week (Photo by Jen Kinney)

But as June Thunderstorm recently wrote in the Baffler, while cigarette smoking bans might be touted under the neutral guise of public health, it’s no coincidence that the people affected are more likely to live below the poverty line. Even when it comes to pot, attitudes are changing. After lifting the sitting ban, the mayor went on to write, “Along with my liberal view of park use, please don’t litter or graffiti or smoke weed so obviously that you scare olds my age.”

After all, being caught with a small amount of pot in Philadelphia triggers just a $25 fine, and police could easily crack down on it without keeping everyone off the walls or parking a cruiser in the center of the square. So there’s reason to believe that outcries over public smoking have as much to do with who is doing the smoking as with the behavior itself.

“I don’t really see how sitting on a wall versus standing next to a wall affects whether you can smoke pot. If they want to smoke pot, they will,” says Coryn Wolk, who lunches in the park and attended the sit-on with a sign that read “Your Racism Is an Eyesore.”

“I’d like them to actually get rid of the cop car and involve people in decision-making about the park and public space,” she says.

Mina Smith-Segal and Betsy Wice, Rittenhouse residents in support of the sit-on (Photo by Jen Kinney)

Jeff Risom, managing director of urban design firm Gehl in the United States, says the type of ownership over public space that Friends groups and public-private partnerships create isn’t unique to Philly and can be “actually a little bit dangerous.” With cities unable or unwilling to spend the needed resources on park upkeep, that private money is increasingly necessary to maintain usable parks.

“But at the same time if they truly take a sense of ownership, they might exclude groups of people or any type of public life the group deems inappropriate,” says Risom.

If people choose to sit on the walls, though they weren’t intended for it, perhaps they should be seen like desire lines across fields: Attentive designers and parks managers should allow that behavior instead of shutting it down. Risom suggests that for parks like Rittenhouse, which draws visitors from across the city, a Friends group needs to represent all of those users, not just those who can afford to live nearby.

In an article for the New Republic, Saffron floated a similar idea: Rather than conservancies for individual parks, citywide conservancies could direct private dollars to the areas of greatest need, “just like our parks departments used to do,” she wrote.

Greg Matysik, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, hopes that more equitable investment will be one outcome of the Rebuild Initiative, a plan to invest $500 million in city parks, rec centers and libraries, funded by the city’s new soda tax. “Money is going to places that have a lot of inherent wealth,” he says, “but still we see that there are parks and recreation centers in Philadelphia that see 1/100th of the investment that Rittenhouse does.”

One of those parks is McPherson Square, in Philadelphia’s heroin-ravaged Kensington neighborhood. Dennis Payne, who organizes street people and is a member of Friends for McPherson Park (sometimes referred to as “Needle Park”), attended the sit-on. He says it took years just to get street lights turned back on, and now he’s hoping Rebuild will fund security cameras. “We don’t want them but we need them,” he says.

In Rittenhouse, the cop car and anti-sitting signs might only have served to make the park less safe. As Jane Jacobs famously said, and as sit-on organizer Erika Reinhard repeated, eyes on the street are one of the surest ways to provide security in public space. If people don’t feel welcome, they won’t stay, and the park will become less safe for everyone.

“You can’t live your life in fear,” says Reinhard, with a laugh, “especially in Rittenhouse Square.”

What You Should Know If You Plan to Protest Trump’s Inauguration

Washington, D.C.-area high school students protest outside the Supreme Court in November. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Despite a record crowd of 2 million attendees, a flurry of racist threats and concerns about a possible terrorist plot on the eve of President Barack Obama’s first swearing-in, not a single person was arrested at the 2009 inauguration.

Considerably more discord seems likely for the Jan. 20 inauguration of Donald J. Trump.

The National Park Service has received 23 requests from groups hosting events both pro- and anti-Trump, reports the New York Times. The inauguration planning committee is anticipating another record crowd of between 2 million and 3 million Trump supporters, with D.C.’s homeland security director estimating a more modest 800,000 to 900,000. The next day, the Women’s March on Washington is expected to draw at least 200,000 people protesting the new U.S. president.

That march and many of the other demonstrations are permitted, but — no surprise here — tensions are likely to be high, and other actions of the extra-legal sort are also planned. If you plan to be one of the many converging on Washington, D.C., this weekend, here’s a guide for what to expect when it comes to the law.

When Choosing Where to Protest
“Everybody has the absolute right to protest, and Washington, D.C., has a long history of people protesting,” says Jody Dodd, a member of Philadelphia-based legal collective Up Against the Law, which leads trainings, distributes resources about protesters’ rights and helps track detainees through the legal system. (The ACLU also has a know-your-rights guide for the inauguration here.)

Even so, some actions are sure to attract the interest of law enforcement. Marching is fine; blocking streets or entering secure areas could get you arrested. D.C. is also a maze of different types of property with different legal statuses — local, federal, embassies, consulates, etc. — and will be patrolled on Inauguration Day by no fewer than three dozen different law enforcement agencies, including Metro police, Secret Service, National Guard, and police officers from 50 to 70 agencies from across the country.

While most minor offenses will likely be handled by Metro police, entering a secured area puts people at risk of being charged at the federal level.

“People need to be mindful of where barricades are,” says Dodd. “If you want to minimize the possibility of arrest you need to be sure that you don’t go through areas that have been marked off.” That includes buildings like the Senate and Congress. Being arrested there could result in federal charges too.

Dodd advises checking out a map of D.C. and where actions are taking place ahead of time. Historically, police have allowed buses bringing protesters to drop them close to the site of the inauguration, but often people will need to meet those buses down near RFK Stadium at the end of the day.

The maze of land ownership also poses a threat to the #Trump420 march, at which a local marijuana legalization advocacy group plans to give out 4,200 joints. Possessing pot is legal under D.C. law, but it’s illegal to smoke in public and illegal to possess on federal land. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said it won’t be a police priority to arrest smokers, but it can’t hurt to be aware of where you’re lighting up.

Another set of actions organized under the banner #DisruptJ20 aims to “delegitimize this government and set the tone for the next four years,” organizer Legba Carrefour told the Washington Post. While the group has a permit for their counter-inaugural march, other actions are planned that would create chaos at security checkpoints. The group is holding trainings at McPherson Square starting on Tuesday on topics including civil disobedience and interacting with police.

While those participating in illegal actions knowingly risk arrest, bystanders may be relatively safe, thanks to a class-action lawsuit against the district brought by hundreds of protesters and bystanders who were arrested without warning at a 2002 World Bank Protest. Some were hog-tied and detained for over a day before being released. Ever since, says Caleb Medearis of the National Lawyers Guild, a voluntary association that coordinates legal support for protests, police have been more hands-off.

Dodd also cautions that while most of the time police do need to warn protesters before making arrests, “if you’re at a really big demonstration four blocks away, you’re not going to hear that.”

If You’re Arrested While Protesting
“Everything is fine until it’s not,” Dodd likes to say of demonstrations. If you’re at an action and things start to go sideways, there’s a few things to keep in mind.

First, Up Against the Law and other groups use their trainings to remind everyone that people of color, women and people with disabilities are not only more likely to be heckled by counter-protesters, they’re also more likely to be targeted by police for arrest. It’s always good to use the buddy system at mass demonstrations, especially when you’re marching with people more at risk.

Second, know that running could put you at risk, even if you did nothing wrong. If detained, Dodd says it’s best to stick to the four magic phrases: Am I being detained; I do not consent to a search; I want a lawyer; and I wish to remain silent.

If the answer to the first is no, you’re free to walk away. If you are being detained, Dodd says it’s best to answer an officer’s basic questions — do give your name, and don’t give a fake one; it’s illegal to lie to the police — and then say you’ll be silent and stick to it. “If you are detained or taken into custody, it’s usually not beneficial to speak to the police,” says Medearis. Because they can, legally, lie to you. So it’s best to be silent so as not to fall for any “if you just tell us your friend’s name, we’ll let you go” tactics.

Medearis says it’s also important to be aware of D.C.’s stringent “Assaulting a Police Officer” statute. The law lumps together a whole host of behaviors that include not just physical assault but also “resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating, or interfering” with law enforcement. As Reveal News found, D.C. residents have been prosecuted under the law for wiggling while handcuffed or yelling at an officer, and the vast majority of those charged were black.

And here’s the really big catch: This charge can hold even if the original arrest is deemed illegitimate. “If an officer is arresting you for no reason, and you resist, you’ll be arrested also for assaulting a police officer,” says Medearis. Even if that first charge is ultimately dropped, you’ll still wind up in court for the second.

Going limp and refusing to assist an officer in your own arrest is a gray area. The officer assault statute states that the detainee must be “actively oppositional,” and case law has held up that going limp should not count as an assault. But Medearis cautions that individual officers might not know that. You could still wind up arrested, and it will go on your record. A woman at a recent Up Against the Law training related a story about a friend who, when she went limp, accidentally head-butted the officer who was cuffing her from behind. She wound up with a charge for assault.

For first-time offenders and those arrested for minor charges, Metro police will likely use a procedure known as post and forfeit. Protesters will be brought to a central booking area where they’ll be given the option of paying between $50 and $100 to be released without needing to plead guilty or go before a court.

“When you do that, you are done. You don’t need to come back to Washington, D.C., for any other court things,” says Dodd. “It doesn’t show up on your record, you are not criminally charged.” It’s basically a jaywalking ticket. There will even be an ATM in the room if you need to make a withdrawal.

If you don’t take the offer, you’ll go through the whole court process, which will likely require returning to D.C. several times. (That’s one reason the District has adopted post-and-forfeit: so many protesters come from elsewhere.) Being arrested on federal charges means going through federal courts and possibly being held for several days before going before a magistrate.

If You’re Observing or Recording Protesters
If you are released the same day, you will probably not be allowed to make a phone call. It’s still a good idea to write the phone number for NLG’s or another organization’s legal hotline on your arm, in case you do get to make a call and your other belongings are confiscated. (Up Against the Law will be operating one in Philadelphia.)

Both organizations and a host of others will have legal observers at the protests, people who will not be participating in the demonstrations but will be watching police behavior and tracking arrests. If they witness police moving in to detain people, or acting in ways that seem shady, they’ll film officers and ask detainees for their names and birthdays so their host organizations can help track them through the legal system. If a friend goes missing, you can call one of these organizations to find out if they’re in custody and where and when they’ll be released.

“They could release you any time, late at night, early morning,” says Medearis. If they’ve been informed of the arrest, NLG’s jail support group will be out there waiting with Metro fare, hot cocoa and other support.

Also be aware that while everyone has a legal right to film the police, posting that footage — or streaming it to Facebook Live — could get your fellow demonstrators in trouble. That’s what happened to a teen photographed destroying a police car during the 2015 unrest in Baltimore: He was sentenced to 12 years in prison a year later.

“Just from the perspective of the legal collective, we are not about trying to put people in jail,” says Dodd. “So people just need to be aware that when you put people up on websites, there are consequences to that for the person.”

If you do film police actions, she says, focus on the officers, not the protesters. Write down badge numbers, and try to get the names and numbers of witnesses willing to speak up in court. And stay out of the way — if officers accuse you of interfering in an arrest, you could get detained too.

How to Prepare for a Protest
Before you go, consider what actions you’ll be participating in and prepare accordingly. Chaining yourself to the Lincoln Memorial? Adult diapers might come in handy.

Everyone should bring water, warm layers and snacks, and possibly hand warmers. Know that backpacks might keep you from getting through checkpoints, and knives and guns are definitely not allowed.

If you take meds, have them with you in their prescription bottle, not in a plastic baggie or a weekly med dispenser. If you’re detained, police could refuse you your medicine on the grounds that they don’t know what it is.

Living Among Warehouses, Community Fights to Breathe

A home near the BNSF rail yard on the west side of San Bernardino, California, where 47 percent of children have asthma (Photo by Ericka Flores)

When Tommy Rocha bought his dream house in Bloomington, a small unincorporated area in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, he loved the wide open scenery he could see from his backyard. Diesel trucks had invaded his old neighborhood in Rialto as the distribution warehouses that fuel America’s online shopping addiction encroached on the cheap land there. But in Bloomington, drinking coffee outdoors on the mornings he wasn’t working at an aerospace manufacturing warehouse down in Riverside, Rocha could see clear from Mt. Baldy to Big Bear, with snowcapped mountains strung out in between.

“Now I see a mountain on the left, a mountain on the right and two giant warehouses in the middle,” he says. Though the land behind Rocha’s house was zoned residential when he bought it, four years later, warehouses sprung up there too. Now some of his neighbors complain they can’t even watch TV because of the trucks rattling by all hours of the day.

And the residents of this largely working-class, Latino area worry about the effect of that traffic on their health. “They want to know why their kids all have asthma,” says Rocha.

It’s no secret that Southern California has some of the worst air pollution in the United States. About 1,341 people in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale area are estimated to die each year because of pollution levels. The Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metro area, where Rocha lives, ranks second — with 808 estimated air quality-related deaths per year. About 40 percent of all U.S. goods pass through the region.

Next month, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) will vote on a new plan to meet updated federal EPA air quality standards. While air quality has improved drastically in the region since the 1970s despite population growth and the explosion of the goods movement industry, Southern California still fails to meet EPA standards around ground level ozone and particulate matter, standards that have progressively tightened over the years.

With a new Republican-majority board, SCAQMD’s new plan relies not only on more stringent regulations but also on giving financial incentives to companies to slash their emissions. Philip Fine, deputy executive officer of planning, rule development and area sources at SCAQMD, says incentives will speed up the adoption of newer, cleaner technologies while lowering the risk that companies will file lawsuits against new regulation. Environmental groups, including the local Sierra Club chapter and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), of which Rocha is a part, say the plan is too weak on indirect sources of pollution — like the diesel trucks that serve the warehouses — and prioritizes industry over community health.

“Give them incentives? That’s a slap in our face,” says Rocha.

“Our view is, the polluters should pay up to clean up their own mess,” says Michele Hasson, policy advocate at CCAEJ. With incentives, “you’re essentially getting the people who are suffering and can’t breathe the air to pay the polluters. So we’re paying not only with our lives but with our taxes.”

Exactly how the SCAQMD will raise between $12 billion and $14 billion for financial incentives over the next 15 years is still a matter of debate. That funding would help companies replace their older vehicles and equipment with zero or near-zero emissions technology, and represents a considerable step up from the approximately $100 million to $150 million per year available in incentives today. A draft plan lays out over a dozen possible funding sources, including increasing vehicle registration fees, or gas or property taxes.

“We’re looking everywhere at regulatory measures to reduce emissions,” says Fine. “The problem is even after you institute all these — and it does take time for regulations to get implemented, for technology to catch up when you’re doing a technology-forcing regulation — it’s still not enough.”

He gives the example of a small trucking company that needs to buy a new truck in 2018, five years before the next EPA deadline SCAQMD must meet. That small business owner might buy the cleanest truck available at the time, but it won’t meet a new clean air standard that will go into effect in 2020. Regulation would deem that truck illegal, and require the owner to buy a new one at a loss. Incentives, say Fine, would give the owner a good financial reason to get the newest technology.

Fine says the incentives are intended for smaller companies, not the behemoths like Amazon, Walmart and FedEx. He estimates about half the trucks are owned by these smaller outfits, even when they are serving industry giants. But Hasson and Allen Hernandez, a Sierra Club organizer, say the incentives let polluters off the hook.

“This whole approach to incentives is so far-fetched,” says Hernandez. “We’re literally being invaded here by the largest companies in the world, and you want to give them incentives to clean up.”

They also want to see the SCAQMD take greater action to curb indirect sources of pollution. Where Rocha lives, it’s not factories or oil refineries contributing most to the poor air quality, it’s trucks that serve warehouses that aren’t themselves big polluters. Fine says the SCAQMD can regulate static sources of pollution like factories, with only limited authority over mobile sources like trucks. Most of that authority rests with the state-level California Air Resources Board (CARB), which Fine says is already committing to reductions.

Both Hernandez and Hasson say the SCAQMD could do more. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has adopted an indirect source rule, and Hasson thinks the SCAQMD could lobby CARB to do the same. She says the incentives proposal is tied to the idea that creating more regulations will deter companies from locating to the community, thus depriving the area of jobs.

Dwight Robinson, one of the new Republican members of SCAQMD’s board appointed last spring, said at a meeting last year, “With every rule-making and regulation we need to be looking at the economic impact as well as the environmental impacts.”

Hasson agrees that the SCAQMD must consider economic impacts — to families, not just industry. The warehouses usually hire through temp agencies, shuffling workers around so they’re always part-time and never get benefits. If their children wind up with asthma from living in the midst of the freight traffic, that can cost families an estimated $20,000 a year. “They’re in the negative just to pay their healthcare costs,” says Hasson.

Many of those warehouses are aiming for automation, too. Hasson points to a Skechers warehouse that promised 6,000 jobs and opened with only 2,000, many of which become obsolete due to automation each year.

In a way, Rocha is lucky. He’s got a union job at a plant in Riverside where he’s worked for 39 years. His father retired from the same spot. “You can keep good manufacturing jobs in Southern California,” he says. He’s living proof. But another high-tech warehouse has been proposed that would sit just 70 feet from the wall in his backyard. That’s just 10 feet farther than the distance from home plate to first base at a Little League game.

“They won’t put this in affluent white neighborhoods, they only put them in communities of color,” he says. For now, a petition filed by a lawyer secured with the help of CCAEJ has kept the planning department from moving forward, but Rocha is vigilant and trying to bring more neighbors into the fight. Regulating land use is not within SCAQMD’s authority, but requiring companies to update their fleets faster is.

Fine says SCAQMD is still open to suggestions and potential changes to the plan, which will go to vote on Feb. 3. He and the environmental activists agree on one thing: Air quality has improved dramatically over the past few decades. Hasson and Hernandez say that positive change has happened thanks to regulation and minimal incentives. Fine says regulations have taken the region this far, but that incentives are necessary to keep moving forward.

“We think we can get more emission reductions and improve public health better and earlier by bringing those facilities to the table to see what measures can be taken and try to make them as enforceable as a regulation would be,” he says, “versus coming right out of the gate with a regulation by which the lawsuits will start on day one.”

NYC Releases Design Guidelines for Public Housing

NYCHA properties on the Lower East Side (Photo by Alan Chin)

In the eight decades since the first of New York City’s public housing was built, the city has changed dramatically. The New York City Housing Authority, on the other hand, has stayed largely the same.

Yes, elevators have been continually updated. The ’90s brought landscape redesigns that introduced many of the seating areas and playgrounds — and the now-ubiquitous steel fences — to the complexes’ outdoor areas. “But more or less what’s really notable about NYCHA is how little has changed,” says Nicholas Bloom, author of “Public Housing That Worked,” a history of how NYCHA has succeeded where other cities’ public housing authorities have struggled.

This week, for the first time, NYCHA is releasing a set of design guidelines for the rehabilitation of its residential buildings, created by Jae Shin, an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow for the agency. Many of the new guidelines are subtle and wonky and will be largely invisible to residents, like adopting new best practices for sealing roofs and repairing facades. Others, like redesigned kitchens that afford more space, will affect residents more directly.

Some are already underway: Throughout the year it has taken to develop the guidelines, the agency has been replacing dim, yellow outdoor lights best suited to parking lots with the brighter, whiter lights used in parks. Until now, improvements have not been consistent across properties.

“This is an effort to say we need to up the investment,” says Deborah Goddard, NYCHA’s executive vice president of capital projects. “We need to get the housing authority on strong financial and operational footing. We need to bring the authority’s operation and designs into the current state of best practices, and we need to make sure we’re providing housing for our residents and communities for our residents that are safe, that are healthy. Clearly the design guidelines address both of those.”

Besides safety and health, connectivity is the third central aim of NextGeneration NYCHA, the agency’s 10-year strategic plan, of which the guidelines are a part. Better lighting, for example, contributes to creating places where people actually want to be and spaces people feel comfortable walking through, whether or not they live in the development.

Right now, dim lighting and a cacophony of fences often separate NYCHA properties from the surrounding fabric of the city. Instead of contributing to connectivity, the landscaping “is intentionally designed to do the opposite,” says Goddard. “My perspective is it does a disservice to the residents we serve, the communities we serve.”

The new guidelines encourage designers to limit use of fences to athletic areas and around compactors, and to utilize benches and plantings as boundaries instead. Concrete is preferred to asphalt in order to cut down on the heat island effect, and designers are told to use native plants.

“Our design guidelines focus on explaining why we set up certain types of principles,” says Shin. “They’re not necessarily requirement-heavy but are really explaining where we are putting our priorities when it comes to rehabbing our buildings.” Sustainability is one of those priorities, as is creating a set of guidelines that can be continually updated as best practices change.

Actually implementing the guidelines at each of NYCHA’s 328 developments will be a long process. They’ll be utilized as buildings go through renovations, and NYCHA’s buildings need many, many renovations. When possible, they’ll start from the exterior of the buildings and move inside. Roofs and building skins will be updated to minimize leakage and improve insulation; then building systems like heating and electrical will receive improvements and lastly, apartment interiors, which are slated to receive upgrades to kitchens and bathrooms.

Bloom says the guidelines demonstrate “the adaptability of these landscapes with the right application of resources.”

“It shows that with investment, the grounds of the building, the interiors can be made quite nice,” he says.

One huge challenge, of course, is funding those investments. NYCHA faces a $17 billion capital funding gap and a chronic operating deficit. The agency’s capital funding largely comes from the federal government, so its future is in limbo as NYCHA feels out the incoming administration. (“I think we are crossing our fingers. We don’t have much information,” Goddard says.)

NextGen NYCHA includes a proposal to lease some “underused” land in public housing complexes to developers to build mixed-income properties. The move has critics, but the added income could help address some of the agency’s capital needs.

“Public housing has for ages sat sort of to the side of the debate and the investment and the conversation of affordable housing,” says Goddard. “We really have two systems: the private affordable, and the private affordable. And the public affordable has never been treated with the same degree as investment and respect as the private affordable housing side. I think this is a turn to say we have a hugely important affordable housing asset here in New York City.”

Bloom points to a 2013 study that found rehabbing NYCHA’s 179,000 units would cost approximately $17 billion, compared to $66 billion to replace them should the old buildings fall into too deep a state of disrepair. With NYCHA providing 74 percent of all rental housing in NYC at less than $500 a month, and 51 percent of all rental housing below $800 a month, “it’s really important that we preserve what we’ve got really well,” says Shin.

The guidelines, then, are a mixture of the aspirational and the realistic. Goddard says many would love to see the NYCHA buildings completely reskinned up to modern standards, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Each of the guide’s four sections (outdoor site, building exteriors, building interiors, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems) includes a chapter on “what lies ahead.” By 2050, for example, NYCHA probably needs to move away from steam heating.

The guidelines were developed with input from many of the agency’s divisions and 11,000 employees. As changes to outdoor areas and other improvements that will more directly affect residents are implemented, residents will be brought into the conversation as well.